#WriteOut: Giving Kids A Camera In Order to Capture The Wild

As the Write Out project kicks off today (and goes for the next two weeks, with the National Day on Writing right in the middle of it all), I wanted to share out a project I have had underway for a few weeks now, in which my sixth grade students have been going about their small suburban town “capturing the wild” with photographs. We aim to use the photos as part of a connection with another school, and for some writing this week.

You can view my podcast video here (via SoundSlides)

Peace (thinking it through),
Kevin

The TikTok Kids and the Social Media Dance

There’s a fascinating deep dive into the world of TikTok in The New Yorker magazine (technology issue) this week. If you don’t know what TikTok is, other than hearing the alliterative name on the lips of every adolescent and teen you come across, it’s a good place to start.

Read How TikTok Holds Our Attention by Jia Tolentino (one of my favorite writers!!)

Tolentino notes how the quick edited, and remixed, videos made in the Chinese-company-owned app cross language and culture (although not without some significant bumps in government regulatory filters at times); is music-based, for the most part; involves elaborate edits for laughs and humor; reminds some users of the now-dead Vine app; uses AI algorithms to feed your homepage with what it thinks you want to see; has the usual strands of racism, sexism and other negative elements that invade many social media spaces; is built on the backbone of Music.ly, which I do remember; and is perfectly geared to the short-attention population.

(Aside: if you wonder why I wrote ‘Chinese-company-owned app’, it’s because I do pay attention, as much as I can, to where companies originate from, as some countries and companies work more closely than others to gather data from users of technology. China is certainly one of those. Tolentino doesn’t dive into that particularly issue, so there’s no clear line from TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, to the Chinese government, but she does bring forward the tension between the engineering division of the app that works in the US and the home offices in China, with one observer noting that the front office runs the show, despite any stated ‘independence’ of the US operations. So, always be wary of who has your data. You know that, right? Do our kids know that?)

And of course, there’s Lil Nas X and the hit song, Old Town Road, which was built and engineered purposefully on and for the TikTok community — short, funny, catchy — in hopes the viral nature would filter over into the larger music world. It worked.

I still know I need to learn more. (see TikTok trending videos)

Each afternoon, the students in my sixth grade classroom line up in groups, and some “do TikTok” as they say, and what they mean is that they act out the elaborate quick-edits of some popular TikToks, sort of like social media coordinating swimming but on concrete. I can only watch.

It’s strange, and funny, and weirdly elaborate, with foot moves and arm movements, and hand gestures, and short vocal phrasing. Given as I am not immersed in TikTok world, I have no anchor to know what it is they are even trying to emulate.

So imagine my surprise when a group of students informs me that we — they and me — will be making a TikTok at the end of the school year. This was not a question. It was a fact. I give a quizzical look and they all smile.

“Um. Ok. Maybe.”

In my head, three ideas rattle around:

  • Learn more about TikTok
  • Maybe TikTok will no longer be “the thing” in seven months
  • Time to brush up on my dance moves

Peace (sustaining your attention),
Kevin

Eyeing Our Way Across the News Spectrum

News Spectrum ExperimentOne of the news apps on my Android phone that I use every now and then — called SmartNews — presented me the other day with a view of a feature they are developing (maybe? it wasn’t clear) that shows news stories as seen across the politically-slanted media spectrum. There was a toggle at the bottom of the screen, and as you moved it, the news filters changed. The screenshot is a collage of me, moving the toggle from left to right, blue to red.

Now, how they determine which is which (which media leans blue and which leans red) wasn’t clear to me (it’s no doubt some algorithm, which brings up all sorts of thorny issues about bias and data mining), but I did find it interesting to view the headlines from news organizations in this manner. This particular day, we were in the mist of the dumb hurricane in Alabama story.

The New York Times used to do a feature that analyzed news from the Left and the Right, too, bringing in different voices through excerpts, but I don’t see it anymore, and that’s too bad. I enjoyed reading what my own political leanings normally would have had me avoid.

If we are ever to break out of these increasingly smaller bubbles, we’re going to need to see the larger world of political views.

I haven’t seen this feature in this news app return, so I don’t know if it is just a beta that I stumbled on or what.

Peace (in blue and red and in-between),
Kevin

 

Invasion of the Memes: The Rise of the VSCO Girl

What to make of this? Since the first day of school, I’ve been hearing references and seeing references to being a ‘VSCO Girl’ in some of my students’ work and discussions. I did a quick search, and found that VSCO is a photo filtering app, and when I asked one of my students if calling themselves a VSCO Girl was related to photography and app filters, they gave me a look of confusion.

So, eh, no, maybe not?

Yet, sort of.

Their own explanation of what VSCO Girls meant was confusing to me, something about scrunchies and hydro-bottles and clothes, and so I decided I needed to do a little more research.  Doing so uncovered this summer-long viral meme of the VSCO Girl that had been completely under my radar. (To be fair, I am a middle age white man with three boys)

Centered mostly on Tik Tok, but now moving over to Instagram and YouTube and SnapChat, being a VSCO Girl is related to how a girl perceives themselves, and apparently, certain products and clothing are key elements.

Another element of this is the saying and typing of “sksksksk” (which seems to stem from slamming fingers on the keyboard or keypad) and “And I oop.”  (A meme reaction people use to show surprise on social media.) VSCO stands for Visual Supply Co. – the business which invented the app that sparked the meme that fed the movement.

One site, StayHipp, described it this way:

A VSCO girl is someone who is active on the VSCO app and/or whose style matches the aesthetics of VSCO. This trend has grown to the extent that “VSCO” is used as an adjective to characterize something or someone who embodies a VSCO girl lifestyle.

The VSCO girl trend is largely based on owning a specific set of items including Birkenstocks, scrunchies, hydro flasks, metal straws, and anything from Brandy Mellville. Many of the items associated with the trend are brand-specific and may be pricy, but things like homemade friendship bracelets and oversized T-shirts are just as important to the trend as AirPods and Instax cameras are. Each individual has the power to put their own spin on this trend, whether it’s through their attitude, style, social media presence, or just the good vibes they radiate.

Most importantly, being a VSCO girl, or even just dabbling in the trend is about keeping a positive outlook and having fun! — via StayHipp

It then goes on to list all of the objects that a VSCO Girl might have, and the cost, and how to buy them.

  • Birkenstock shoes
  • Scrunchie hair ties
  • Hydroflask water bottles
  • Brandy Melville clothing
  • Instagram-able meals
  • Metal straws
  • Slip on Vans shoes
  • Choker necklaces
  • Multiple rings worn at once
  • Friendship bracelets
  • Polaroid cameras
  • Pastel nail polish
  • Mario Badescu skincare products
  • Fjällräven backpacks
  • Stickers on laptops and water bottles
  • Carmex lip balm

Which makes me think this is all part of some larger Product Influencer Campaign, to sell stuff to young girls by targeting their Girl Identity through social media. Which makes me wary of the trend, yet I’m amazed at how much the concept has filtered through my entire sixth grade classes in just a few weeks of summer. In a small activity yesterday, many tried to add sksksksks and I Oop into what they were writing. That includes boys as well as girls, which makes me wonder if the meme is turning into something else altogether.

A piece at Slate, in which the writer interviews some high school teenage girls, indicates that the whole VSCO Girl concept can be seen in two lenses — one way is that some girls view it as a connector point through social media, a way to “fit in” through style and choice, and another way is some girls see it as a way to mock the whole consumer-driven marketplace, making fun of the idea of products defining a girl. (And did you know there are not just VSCO Girls, but also Soft Girls and e-Girls?)

For the teens I talked to, most said being called a VSCO girl was a bad thing, something to be avoided. They were mixed on whether anyone would own up to being one or proudly proclaim her VSCO girl status, or any strong connection with it, to the world. — from Slate

Why do I have a sense that these two competing concepts of empowering girls and mocking girls, making its way over social media, are going to collide and the girls who just want to fit in are going to be the very ones who are going to get the most hurt?

How do I have a meaningful discussion about trends like this to give my students the ability to make decisions about social media and memes and empower them to question the viral nature of their world?

I suppose I can do that best by empowering them to be critical of the world, and to think on the power of real friendships, real connections, real people. I want the wonderful girls who spend their days in my classroom with me as writers and readers and members of our community to be true to themselves, and not just become some product of influence from the technology they use.

Peace (confused but trying),
Kevin

Originality Reports Sounds Rather Orwellian


blank dossier flickr photo by theilr shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I don’t blame Google for adding a plagiarism detector into its Google Classroom suite. I suspect teachers have been asking for such a tool, given the ease of cut/paste from outside sources and from each other, and the cost of other service that do the same job.

In fact, last year, a colleague of mine in an earlier grade was worried about some students with the exact same language in an essay for a public safety project. One had shared with the other, via a Google Doc, and some text lifting had occurred, apparently. Perhaps it was an act of friendship more than theft.

I have mixed feelings about the use of plagiarism tools, from an educational standpoint, even though I use Google Classroom regularly with my sixth grade students (but not exclusively Google Classroom … it’s good not to have everything run through Google, for privacy reasons and for experiential reasons). I also realize that high school teachers might have a different approach than I have, given the grade level I teach.

First, the Originality Reports function that Google will be rolling out with Google Classroom in the near future (see Google’s info page) has this Orwellian vibe to the language of its name, doesn’t it? But it’s catchy, too. I give them that. Originality Report.

According to the company, students will be able to check their own work three times against the search database, before submitting a piece of writing, and then teachers can do a check, too. There apparently will be also be a future option to create an internal database of student writing, to be used as a database.

Student work that has been scanned with the tool is not retained or owned by Google. We search for what’s publicly available on the web. In the future, we plan to add an option for schools to have a private repository of student submissions – that they own – so instructors can see peer-to-peer matches. — https://edu.google.com/products/originality/?modal_active=none

Despite Google’s public statement of who owns the student work in the database, I worry about this gathering up of student writing and wonder (again) who owns the words that young people write in a school-sponsored online space like Google Classroom. This issue of ownership of material surfaced with Turnitin, right? And it just sold for $1.75 billion dollars. Plagiarism detection and gathering student work is big business.

As a teacher, I often thoughtlessly assume that whatever my students write, the writing is theirs. They own it. Perhaps I am naive. In fact, I know I am. Anything a student writes for me in a school online space is, in fact, now part of the school’s technology infrastructure, and I suspect those words written, either for assignments or for pleasure, are now owned by the school district. It’s probably in the terms of service. And, well, there’s something unsettling about that, even though I don’t worry about my specific school district. At least, I don’t worry right now, under this school/technology administration.

Is that good enough? Or is that just convenient for me, the teacher?

This also reminds us, as teachers, that we need to be explicitly teaching our students about the use of text, of original ideas and borrowed work, of plagiarism in a Digital Age. We can’t let a technology tool replace the actual teaching, and in this age of accessible text, it’s never been more important to advocate for originality of ideas and writing.

Google’s move towards Originality Report project has surfaced some questions that I have probably avoided with myself in adopting Google Classroom, in terms of student ownership of their writing, and I’ll continue to grapple with it.

I suspect students, living as they do in the Age of Everyday Privacy Invasion, don’t even give this kind of thing a second thought. Which is sad and frustrating. And this reality makes me even more aware of my role as the adult teacher in the room of children, the educator bringing them into an online space for school. I have an obligation to be vigilant in protecting their privacy.

What do you think? Am I making too much of this?

Peace (thinking),
Kevin

Book Review: Reader, Come Home (The Reading Brain in a Digital World)

You can’t be around kids at any age for any amount of time and not worry about what the extended use of small and large screens is doing to the developmental brain. But it still feels so anecdotal. Our teacher lunch room is full of stories and complaints about diminishing attention spans, student writing primarily centered on video games, lack of persistence, and more.

As someone interested in the possibilities of digital literacies, as well as a father, this shifts that seems to be moving under our feet as we move into a more digital world is unsettling, too. It feels as if we are in one of those epoch moments – like moving from oral to written stories, or the age of Gutenberg — where we don’t really know what will emerge from the digital revolution, and we’re hoping for good things but fear the bad.

Reader, Come Home (The Reading Brain in a Digital World) by Maryanne Wolf is the perfect read for this unsettled moment. It will not, by any stretch, ease your mind. In fact, Wolf, a reading teacher and brain specialist who has worked for years on reading skills, will likely set off alarms, if anyone is listening.

And if you’re not listening, you should be.

Wolf’s main premise, supported through multiple findings from emerging research, is that reading on the screen, particularly for young children, is fundamentally changing the way the brain works with the processing information, and that the drastic decline of book reading – the paper bound things on the shelves — in favor of device reading is altering the complicated way the brain develops, over time, to be able to not just process information, deeply, but also to spur comprehension and connections beyond the textural levels.

Wolf would say that my sentence in that last paragraph is too long for a screen-developed reader to read and understand, and she pulls in research showing this to be true. And she explores her own reading life, too, to show how even she (and maybe you, and certainly me) have had our reading lives changed and altered by our time with screens.

Wolf, for example, does a scientific experiment on her own reading of a Herman Hess novel she loved and found she could not attend to the book for even moderate stretches of time. Her thinking would not follow Hess’s complex sentences and ideas. However, she was able to retrain herself back to deeper reading, which informs her ideas about how to address screen reading.

I won’t share all of her scientific explanations, except to say that when a young child is learning to read, each story and each book is part of the layered growth of the brain, building on the previous. Each book is layered on the last. Each story becomes a connector point for the next.

When a young child reads on a screen, though, the pleasure motivator of entertainment — the media, the links, the ancillary information — not only encourages them to skim the surface of text, but teaches them that this is how you read text. The brain remembers and builds those skills with multiple reading. When the brain encounters text, any text, those — skimming, searching for entertainment — are the skills it draws upon.

Comic The Deep

Research has shown that depth of understanding and retention is definitely impacted by screen reading. And, worse, skills that one might develop by reading with a screen do not transfer over to the skills needed for traditional reading on paper. If anything, the screen reading skills diminish the paper reading skills. This is the counter to the argument that people are doing more reading than every these days, just in smaller segments on smaller screens. Reading on screens is not reading in books.

The implications of that are what we are seeing in our classrooms and complaining about in our teacher rooms. It’s what so many of us parents fret about when we don’t see our children reading for any extended periods of time anymore. It’s a generational shift. And it may not bode well for the future.

Wolf explains that families have many reasons for handing over a device to a young reader — it becomes the babysitter for harried parents, it might be viewed by immigrant families as a better teacher of language, it starts as a minor entertainment diversion and escalates into something larger in the lives of children, etc.

Comic The Experience

Wolf does not advocate a “head in the sand” philosophy nor a complete shut-down of all screen reading. Instead, she suggests a path forward, acknowledging the likelihood that devices and screens will continue to dominate the lives of young people (and she does tackle some digital access issues and socio-economic disparities in our communities).

Her central suggestion to addressing the problem of screen readers is to first educate more parents and families on the benefits of “read aloud” between small child and adult — the benefits are many and complex, and all research indicates that reading aloud to infants through teenagers (good luck) has immeasurable impacts on academic performance and success in later years. She notes how many pediatric offices now provide books for all families visiting for check-ups, and use the interaction in the doctor office to teach about the importance of reading aloud.

But Wolf also suggests that our educational system needs to make a significant shift in how we approach the teaching of emerging readers. She lays out three tiers of her approach — but the main element is that we explicitly teach both reading of books and reading of screens in the early elementary years (each requires different reading skills.) By teaching skills in how/when to read digital texts and also how/when to read traditional texts, a young reader begins to develop what Wolf calls “a Biliterate Brain,” trained to understand that we read on the screen in one way for a specific reason while we read books in another way for another reason.

Her hypothesis — based on her work in childhood brain research — is that eventually, the adolescent brain will merge those two skills into a solidified reading approach and will instantly toggle between skills needed for a certain kind of text — reading as code-switching on auto-pilot.

This would require pretty significant shifts in how we teach literacy in school, of course. While many classrooms have devices or computers or access to mobile phones, the curriculum around explicit teaching of reading digitally for comprehension is not a significant part of the educational landscape. It should be.

Even Wolf doesn’t claim to know if this approach of “biliteracy” will work, but she argues that we can’t just sit by and watch a generation of young readers learn to read on screens. The altering of our brains from our devices is real. So is the altering of the brains of our children, and our students, and our future. It’s not enough to shrug our shoulders and hand another device into small hands. We need to recognize the issue and begin to something about it.

It’s up to all of us.

Peace (on paper),
Kevin

A Poem for a Friend: I am Witness

My friend, Rob, who plays bass in my band, shared a story of 9/11 with me. He was in New York City at the time of the attack, watching it from a rooftop and then going to try to help amid the confusion. He moved away from the city afterwards, unable to remain in the space where the disaster unfolded.

After our talk over a band dinner, he sent me some writing he had done, as a way to continue to process and remember. He said I could use his writing as I wanted, so I made a found poem as a way to honor his sharing of his story with me.

This video version of the found poem — I Am Witness — uses Keynote for some simple text animation … and the music is something I composed and created in an app called Thumbjam as a soundtrack for the poem. I shared versions of this project at the new yap.net site, as I was working on finalizing a few things, and I appreciate the feedback from there.

Peace (may it come),
Kevin

A Deeper Dive into the Health of the Internet

Mozilla Web Literacy Report

The Mozilla Foundation recently put out its 2019 Internet Health Report, and I kept meaning to dive in a little deeper to understand some of the trends of online activity, if only to better comprehend the world in which my young students are moving into (or are already immersed into).

You can access the report, too. They analysis focuses on some main areas:

Each of these sections has a series of short pieces on subtopics. I dug deeper into the sections and explored some of the following articles:

The study also makes three key policy suggestions for moving forward to a better Internet:

  • Give local governments and organizations more control over the Internet as they are more apt to have individual experiences and the public good in mind
  • Revamp the whole way advertising is delivered in view of how surveillance and psychological tools for hooking people into games and apps has taken root in so many advertising design elements
  • Purposefully consider the rise of AI through the lens of ethics and responsibility

Overall, the report surfaces some positive trends around privacy and responsibility, but also notes a continuing worry about censorship and the coming AI innovations on the horizon. I found some elements of the report intriguing, and worth a deeper dive, as it seems to provide information and balance, too.

Peace (inside the net),
Kevin

One Step Further: Collaborating with AI Open

Over the weekend, I wrote about using Text to Transformer to start a poem and see where the AI Open-infused text generator — Talk to Transformer — might take my words.

Then, I started to think about how to find a poem inside the text generated by another poem. Could I surface something from inside of something else, inspired by something else altogether? Another nested poem? I’d find out.

Here’s what I did (in case you want to ever do your own):

  • I went into Google Slides (but any slideshow program would work because when you move across slides, it looks like animation) and began to cross out words (blackout poem style).
  • Then I removed the excess words (I cheated, by turning the font color the same color as background, so white text against white background is no longer visible; otherwise, it would have a long formatting exercise of adding spaces where words had been).
  • Finally, I pulled the remaining, revealed text into another poem. I used transitions and animations to make the process more visible in the slides (the whole thing is as visual hoax, really, using different slides layered on each other to seem like the text is being animated).

Sort of odd. I like that kind of weird writing and weird writing processes.

Peace (in the poem),
Kevin

 

Writing Collaboration with OpenAI: Context and Constraints

What happens when you hand off your poem to a “modern neural network”? Something strange, with a hint of interesting. I was using a site called Talk to Transformer, which is built on the back of some neural network mapping of OpenAI and which is designed to complete your text, using its signifiers and databases.

The site explains that it is:

… an easier way to play with OpenAI’s new machine learning model. In February, OpenAI unveiled a language model called GPT-2 that generates coherent paragraphs of text one word at a time … While GPT-2 was only trained to predict the next word in a text, it surprisingly learned basic competence in some tasks like translating between languages and answering questions.

So, of course, I could not resist feeding it some words to see what would happen, starting the lines of a poem about context and constraints, and in the image above, you can see what it spit out for me. There is something beautiful surfacing there, in the juxtaposition of my poem starter and its story extension, although I am at a loss to really understand how it made the leap from my words to its text.

For example, the point of view shifts from third person to first person, and suddenly, the narrator is talking of their mother’s love (or lack of) in a world fallen apart. But look at the last three lines it generated … it’s almost like the start of something else altogether, maybe a new poem generated by human hand … Maybe the game turns to me to continue onward with the AI’s idea ..

I am what I am when I’m no longer
something that mustn’t be forgotten…
a person so beautiful

So remember me; you must remember us,
as I remember this wasted Earth
when love was nearly lost

and all we had left to hold was each other,
in the days after fallen trees
and warming seas

I still carry the bones of my mother,
that which the soil would no longer hold:
I am young; I am old

The image is a layered gif that I made in Lunapic because I wanted to do something more with the writing. I purposely added non-digital writing tools to contrast the use of AI to make a piece of writing.

Peace (in texts, transformed),
Kevin